The Beguines of Medieval Paris

Gender, Patronage, and Spiritual Authority

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Tanya Stabler Miller
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , March
     2018.
     304 pages.
     $27.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780812224115.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Beguines—women who took no official religious vows yet lived lives of chastity, poverty, and in imitation of Christ—have long fascinated their contemporaries and historiographers. Tanya Stabler Miller’s work is an excellent study of the beguines of medieval Paris that helpfully extends the historiographical account of these women, providing not only a synthesis of earlier scholarship, but also expanding it in crucial ways. The book attends with great care to the “flexibility and dynamism” of beguine life as manifest in the demography, spirituality, social networks, and participation in economic life of the city by various beguine communities (2). 

Following the path-breaking work of Walter Simons’s 2001 study, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities of the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565 (University of Pennsylvania Press)Miller synthetically studies—through archival examination of diverse material including tax rolls, property records, sermons, and exempla—the texture of beguine life, not only in terms of their spiritual friendships, relationships with male clerics, and religious ideals, but also their occupations, financial obligations, and patronage by the crown. 

Although the book focuses on late medieval Paris, Miller demonstrates the complex regional networks—spiritual, institutional, and economic—in which beguines participated. Thus, like Simons, Miller argues that economic structures and spiritual seeking are bound together. In its portrayal of “interaction and collaboration” in these networks, The Beguines of Medieval Paris also follows a current trend in women’s historiography by refusing to be a lachrymose history that portrays beguines as continuously persecuted and marginal figures whose liminal status necessarily consigned them to the suspicion and violence of their contemporaries (13).  

Chapter 1 reconstructs King Louis IX’s foundation of the Paris beguinage on the model of the court beguinages of the Southern Low Countries in the late 1250s. Miller shows how Louis’s support of beguines was a component of his desire to be a just and moral king, and the ways in which his desire to live a life closely aligned to the ideals of the apostolic life (simplicity, charity, penance) while remaining in his position as king both echoed beguine ideals and subjected him to similar criticism and approbation as the beguines whom he patronized. In other words, Louis’s interest in the beguines was profoundly personal. 

Chapter 2 takes the reader inside the beguinage, demonstrating the way in the which the beguine vocation had appeal for women from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Unlike nuns, beguines were not required to hand their property over to the community. Miller shows the variety of ways that wealthy beguines used their property, arguing that this circulation was a source of both strength and difficulty for the community. 

Chapter 3 examines the profound interconnections between the beguines of Paris and the burgeoning silk trade in the city. Beguines, Miller demonstrates, were important players in the rise of this industry, including some who owned workshops in which they employed other beguines. This industry enabled beguines not associated with the beguinage to pursue their vocation despite the seeming difficulties of being unenclosed and single.

Although the close relationship between beguine communities and mendicant orders has long been a topic of historiography, chapter 4 wonderfully examines the relationship between the beguinage and the clerics of the Sorbonne, founded by the great supporter of the beguines, Robert of Sorbon, in whom Louis IX also found a defender. Robert represented the beguines as models for the spiritual aspirations of university clerics and fostered the relationship between the two communities. Although the beguines were attacked by priests like William of Saint-Amour—an attack that would culminate in the trial, condemnation, and execution of the beguine Marguerite Porete, who was judged by twenty-one Parisian theologians, six of whom would then help compose the decrees negatively attacking beguines at the Council of Vienne in 1311—Miller demonstrates that there were many positive links between Sorbonne clerics and beguines. 

Chapter 5 turns to sermons created by beguines themselves, as well as those that discuss them, in order to elaborate on the arguments of chapter 4 regarding the relationship between the university and the beguinage. Notable in this regard is Miller’s use of six excerpts from sermons preached by the mistress of the beguinage, who used the pulpit as an opportunity to recast and resist the portrayal of beguines by male clerics who attended primarily to external manifestations of beguinal piety. 

Chapters 6 and 7 examine the effects of Marguerite Porete’s trial and the Vienne decrees on the Parisian beguines. The lingering esteem for Louis IX by his successors protected the beguinage, which continued to receive royal patronage and was made officially exempt from the Vienne decrees (the beguinage remained in operation until 1471). There was, nevertheless, a rise in the 14th century of attacks on the beguine community by clerics, who increasingly spoke of them as devious presences veiled by the semblance of false devotion. Miller charts the deleterious effect of these attacks over time. 

The use of multiple disciplinary perspectives and sources make this book an important contribution to the history of medieval beguines. It is persuasive in its argument for the importance of beguines to 13th and 14th-century Paris and of Paris to beguine culture more broadly. In its balanced representation of the tribulations and successes of Parisian beguines, it provides a nuanced portrait of these communities in their spiritual, financial, and social engagements.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel J. Smith is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tanya Stabler Miller teaches history at Loyola University Chicago.

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